Monday, 10 May 2010

On Justification and Explanation: My Reply to Ben

What follows is my response to the questions posed by Ben in the comments following his post.

I’m not sure how you’re using the words ‘justification’ or ‘explanation’ here; these are terms of art and philosophers tend to define them in different ways. Moreover, on the way I’m inclined to use the word ‘explanation’, your question as to whether entitlement falls on the justification or explanation side of the divide does not lend itself to a straightforward answer. In fact, given my way of carving things up, the question would be somewhat ill-formed; the distinction between justification and explanation is simply not salient. Instead of talking about explaining a belief or action, I prefer to speak about making a belief or action intelligible. (The 'making intelligible' locution is meant to highlight the difference between the types of explanation implicated in our folk psychology, and that offered by the natural/physical sciences). The difference is not simply terminological. The philosophically interesting respects in which my preferred way of carving things up differs from your own may be seen in the following summary of the view I find most attractive.

When we ask why an agent believes such and such (at least in the sense of ‘why’ I presently have in mind), the question presupposes that the transitions that give rise to the belief are subject to certain norms relating to truth. Analogously, when we ask why an agent performs some action, the question presupposes that the transitions that give rise to the agent’s intentions are subject to certain norms relating to what ought to be done (what I refer to as ‘goodness-conditions’). I refer to both the norms relating to truth and goodness as ‘rational norms’. This way of putting things involves broadening the applicability of reason-talk to include more than the norms relating to truth. Moreover, I hold that a transition may be subject to a rational norm even if the agent engaged in the transition lacks the conceptual resources necessary to understand that norm. The upshot is that even the psychological transitions of animals may be subject to rational norms.

On the present view, a transition’s being subject to a rational norm does not entail or require that the agent performing the transition be able to assess whether or not that transition is rational. (Assessment is, of course, reserved for agents with the required conceptual capacities; namely, rational agents.) Thus, I distinguish between the conditions necessary for performing a transition that is rationally evaluable and the conditions necessary for evaluating a transition’s rationality. The first set of conditions are met by all agents with beliefs and intentions, while the second is met only by those agents that can reflect on (i.e., rationally evaluate) their beliefs or intentions. Moreover, it is only agents capable of evaluating their own beliefs and intentions that may be correctly described as ‘rationally responsible’. To say that an agent is rationally responsible is to say, not only that the agent’s beliefs or intentions, but also the agent herself is rationally evaluable. Thus, I also distinguish between the necessary conditions for an agent’s beliefs and intentions being rationally evaluable and the necessary conditions for an agent being rationally evaluable in the light of her beliefs and intentions. The latter are only met by rational agents.

To say that a transition is rational is, on the present view, to say that it is reason-providing. This reason provides the agent with an entitlement to beliefs or intentions based on that transition. When a suitably equipped agent comes to recognise her reasons as such, her entitlement (eo ipso) becomes a justification. Thus, a justification is what an entitlement becomes when an agent comes to recognise her reasons as reasons. In sum, I hold that the reasons that provide an agent with an entitlement to a certain belief or intention also constitute an agent’s justification just in case the agent recognises those reasons as reasons. The upshot is that the very reasons that constitute an agent’s entitlement may also constitute her justification; this leaves no room for a distinction between the kind of reasons that justify and kind that explain.

The preceding upshot – namely, that the account on offer leaves no room for the distinction between explanatory and justificatory reasons – may seem like a glaring omission. However, I believe that the intuitions that motivate the standard distinction between explanatory and justificatory reasons may be accommodated (without violence) by the distinction between theoretical and practical transitions. Time won’t allow me to fully unpack the view here. But the gist of it is that the content of theoretical transitions roughly corresponds with the kind of reasons that fall on the justificatory side of the traditional divide, and the content of practical transitions roughly corresponds with the kind of reasons that fall on the explanatory side of the traditional divide. Another way the point may be put (though it does not get things quite right) is to say that while theoretical transitions justify, practical transitions explain. This does not get things quite right since, as I noted above, I prefer to say that theoretical and practical transitions are salient to our respective attempts to render an agent’s beliefs and intentions intelligible. Both represent modes of folk-psychological explanation (which, again, must be contrasted with the types of explanations in the natural/physical sciences). In sum, I hold that the concepts of entitlement and justification (whether theoretical or practical in form) are explanatory concepts; they represent a fundamental part of our folk psychological attempts to render beliefs and intentions intelligible.

With regards to your second question, I believe that the notion of entitlement, like all normative notions, can only be applied by an agent equipped with the necessary concepts. But the question that presently concerns us is not who may apply a normative concept, but rather what a normative concept may have application to. I believe a certain state of affairs can be described as being good for a cat (in the most literal sense imaginable), even if the cat lacks the conceptual resources necessary to understand this fact or apply the concept of goodness in its own case or anyone else’s. Moreover, when we say that a certain state of affairs is good for a cat, we do not mean that it would be good for us if we were in the cat’s place. We mean it is good for the cat. For example, if I were in the corner of the room chewing on a freshly killed mouse, this state of affairs would not be good for me. But given the desires and needs of the cat, it may certainly be good for it. In short, when I say that “chewing on a freshly killed mouse” is good for the cat, I mean from the cat’s perspective (given the cat’s needs, beliefs and desires), not my own.

The need to distinguish between our perspective and that of an animal, whose beliefs and intentions we happen to be evaluating, becomes important when one considers that the evaluations in each case may actually be at odds. For example, a die-hard vegan may believe that it would be bad for her (or any other human being) to ingest the flesh of another animal and yet hold that it is good for a lion to do so. When the vegan says it is good for the lion to do so, she is not putting herself (with all her human capacities and desires) in the lion’s place, for if she were to do so, then whatever moral qualms she has about humans consuming animal flesh would continue to apply. Thus, her assessment of the lion cannot simply be a result of her projecting human capacities to the lion. Rather, she reflects on the lion’s needs, beliefs and desires (not her own) and concludes that the act of ingesting animal flesh is good (from the lion’s perspective. Moreover, reflecting on the lion’s perspective presupposes that it has one, and that this perspective belongs to the lion; not to the human being evaluating the lion’s actions.

The problem I have with your claim that talk of a lion’s reasons is simply metaphorical is that it threatens to obscure the above observations; it gives the impression that the lion really does not have a perspective, independent of the perspective of the human being evaluating the lion's beliefs or actions. This is why I emphasised that the human evaluator could get things wrong when she attempted to attribute certain beliefs and desires to an animal. The possibility that the human evaluator may be mistaken entails that there is something (independent of the human evaluator) that she could be mistaken about. Moreover, I maintain that the lion would continue to have a perspective even if there were no humans around to make evaluations based on it. But your view seems to entail that if all human beings died tomorrow, lions would no longer have a perspective from which certain states of affairs could be evaluated as good or bad. Of course, there would be no one around to carry out the evaluations, but that would not mean that ingesting wood chips and animal flesh would suddenly be seen as on a par by lions. Lions would continue to see ingesting wood chips as something not to be done (which, on my account, constitutes a certain state of affairs being represented as bad) and ingesting animal flesh as something to be done (which, on my account, constitutes a certain state of affairs being represented as good). In brief, when I say that a lion has a reason to stalk and kill a gazelle (for example, in order to feed its cubs), I am saying something about the lion, not about myself.

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